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Comment: More chance of Mike Ashley selling up than changing how he runs Newcastle United

4 months ago
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Mike Ashley, will he or won’t he sell Newcastle United.

None of us have a clue.

What though we surely all know after these past 12 years, is that Mike Ashley won’t change fundamentally how he runs NUFC.

I’m not convinced he will sell the club this time, though I am more believing that it might be a possibility this time compared to what has gone before. Though that is not saying much.

Personally, I get the feeling that for the first time he is keen to sell, no doubt with plans already laid out on exactly where he would be looking to spend that money elsewhere.

Whatever the chances are of him at last relinquishing control, they are undoubtedly massively higher than his mindset altering when it comes to the way Newcastle United operates under him.

Indeed, I would be less surprised if Ashley decided to declutter his Sports Direct stores and go for the quality end of the sports retail market.

There have been changes on certain things but from Mike Ashley overall there has been no ambition shown, not a penny spent on capital expenditure (St James Park, training complex etc) that doesn’t need to be spent, an unwillingness to allow any manager to operate freely, constant interference when it comes to transfer policy,no acceptance of a need to speculate to accumulate, no desire to try and do anything other than try and survive in the Premier League.

We have seen some bizarre strict transfer ‘strategies’ though…

Emphasis on only buying older/experienced players on generally cheaper transfer fees but high wages in Sam Allardyce’s brief spell, as Viduka, Geremi, Cacapa, Beye, Barton, Smith and others were recruited.

Which then quickly became a strict rule of only players aged 26 and under.

We had the French experiment where pretty much every signing was French and/or from Ligue 1.

Which then became a looser general strategy of buying from various weaker overseas leagues that allegedly offered better value, if you were looking to buy younger players who could potentially have a higher resale value.

That all came together in summer 2015, when money that had been kept back/not spent over the course of previous transfer windows (for example, not one player bought in an 18 month period between January 2013 and summer 2014 window) was then suddenly released.

Still a case of only younger players from weaker overseas leagues but over £50m laid out on two 20 year olds (Mitro and Mbemba), a 22 year old (Thauvin) and a 24 year old (Wijnaldum).

The chaotic nature of the overall running of NUFC, especially when it came to signings and who was really making decisions on who should be bought and sold, was then summed up when suddenly with relegation threatening, Mike Ashley then decided to allow the purchases of Shelvey and Townsend in January 2016, two established Premier League players who were also England internationals. Exactly which category the bizarre signing of Henri Saivet fitted into was anybody’s guess.

After Rafa Benitez was appointed in March, Newcastle predictably lost at champions elect Leicester before drawing at home to Sunderland.

The day after that Mackem match, with only eight games remaining and no doubt realising his stupidity at leaving it far too late to replace Steve McClaren with relegation all but a certainty, Mike Ashley lashed out.

Mike Ashley talking to The Mirror (who were the club’s official media partner at the time) 21 March2016:

“All I say is, there is a bank account, when you have emptied it, it’s empty, don’t come crying to me for more money…..

“Virtually nothing now (left in Newcastle United’s bank account). They have emptied it.

“To get a football club to be the best it can be, you have to get the sun, the moons and the stars to align perfectly.

“But there is negativity around me as an individual when it comes to Newcastle, so the best thing was to make sure it was on solid ground and then step back and get them to self manage Newcastle.

“Create a board, get the board to appoint the manager, put the manager on the board as well and then not interfere.

“I don’t know what players they sign, I don’t know what team they are going to pick on a Saturday.

“I don’t really want to have any influence in football to be honest.”

To believe that Mike Ashley wasn’t the one who decided on how much money was spent in those two transfer windows (summer 2015 and January 2016) and doesn’t/didn’t ‘interfere’, is like believing that any major decision at Sports Direct can be made without Ashley’s say so.

Interesting though that Ashley confirmed that the sudden increase in spending on players that season was financed by cash that had been stockpiled by the club, rather than speculating to accumulating.

Moving forward to April 2019 and the latest official Newcastle United accounts (2017/18 season) were belatedly released.

Premier League safety (on a restricted budget yet again) had been achieved by that point and I find it very difficult to believe that the messages Mike Ashley wanted to get out alongside these NUFC accounts, weren’t linked to Rafa Benitez and his impending will he /won’t he sign a new contract.

Via Lee Charnley, Mike Ashley was at pains less than eight weeks ago to say (see below) that nothing is going to change in how the club is run, as well as looking to justify that running of Newcastle United, both now and ‘moving forward’…

Lee Charnley – 18 April 2019 after the release of the 2017/18 NUFC accounts:

“There is much more work to be done, but these positive financial results give the club a strong platform on which to build. We all want to see the club improve and be competitive at every level, and in every competition.

“We are convinced that the best route to achieving this is to do so sustainably, spending on young development players and adding high quality to the first team squad each season – players that can really make a difference and improve the team – without risking the financial health and stability of the club.

“We strongly believe that consistently doing the above, and robustly following this policy, will give us the best possible chance of achieving our shared ambitions.

“Our budget to strengthen the team and establish our place back in the Premier League has been circa £122m over the last two seasons, which was an initial agreed budget of £70m plus an additional £52m generated as a result of sales and outgoing loans.

“We have spent just over 90 per cent of that – £111m – and the balance of £11m will be carried forward to supplement what we have for forthcoming transfer windows as we look to strengthen again.”

Charnley and Ashley are stating £111m has been spent on players these past four transfer windows but once again we are left wondering does this figure include wages. It is also interesting to compare the club’s figures to the transfermarkt website which attempts to track the spending of all clubs (just on transfer fees) and they have an (estimated) total of £93m being spent over these past two seasons, with players sold for £61m, their figures suggesting a net £32m spent over four windows, working out at a net spend of £8m per transfer window.

Once again though, we also come back to the issue which Rafa Benitez is insistent, is as important as the amount of money available to spend, which is the freedom to spend it as he sees fit.

It was confirmed by the club that £33m had been repaid back to Mike Ashley after the summer 2018 transfer window had closed. However, they were insistent that this was only after transfer targets couldn’t be identified/deals completed to spend more money on.

Rafa Benitez made clear he wanted to buy Salomon Rondon early in summer 2018 and yet had to in the end accept a very late loan arrangement which had to include Dwight Gayle going the other way, with Rondon arriving lacking fitness and having spent no pre-season with NUFC. Quite clearly there was no move to bend towards what Rafa Benitez wanted to happen, even though the club then claimed there was more than enough money there to have bought Salomon Rondon (and others?).

Lee Charnley 18 April 2019 – as reported by Martin Hardy (one of a number of selected journalists invited to an audience with Lee Charnley):

“We are looking at a training ground building project that is potentially going to be between £15 m and £20million.

“If you were to ask me now, do I think we are best served spending that on a new training facility or spending it on improving the team, now, today in the short-term, I think that money is best spent on the team.

“We have revisited the plans that came out and we now have a different design. We have also got a different build structure.

“In my experience, has a player turned round and said I’m not signing for Newcastle United because of your training facilities? No. Did it stop us getting promoted out of the Championship, did it stop us finishing tenth, did it stop us having a good season this season? No.

“Is it something at some point in the future, if we could and it was the right time to spend the money, we would look at improving? Yes.”

Back in 2013, Mike Ashley said that a new state of the art training complex was essential for NUFC to compete, that plans had been drawn up and work would start as soon as possible.

Now Mike Ashley, via Lee Charnley, wants to tell us that the quality of your training complex is neither here nor there. With then the whole issue turned on its head and pointed back at the Newcastle fans (and Rafa Benitez), saying what do we want, better training facilities or new players…?

No doubt you will have some people saying it is Mike Ashley’s money/club and he can do what he likes with it, which of course he can.

However, it brings us back to the question of exactly why Mike Ashley owns Newcastle United. Is it about anything other than promoting his retail empire and other fringe benefits for himself (the land development opposite Gallowgate End, Sports Direct’s arrangement with the NUFC official stores (including shutting down all but one of the physical stores) and so on).

Your typical Premier League club owner is looking for two things, the glory and making money.

When it comes to glory I think we can safely rule that one out. Back in 2007, Ashley’s people told John Hall that his main/only reason for buying the club was to promote his retail empire.

When it comes to making money, for your typical owner it is all about adding value to your football club, so that when you eventually sell you rake in as much as possible. There is an acceptance that over the years you will need to almost certainly spend more cash but in the hope that will help you get all that back and more when you eventually sell.

Lee Charnley says above, that the new state of the art training complex would cost between £15m and £20m, Yet the club’s owner has taken twice that amount out of the football club’s cash flow. Yes it is Ashley’s money but it is all Ashley’s money whatever happens, the same when he sells the club, it is all his.

It is what happens in the meantime that concerns us.

Rafa Benitez has made clear he wants a breakthrough season/window at Newcastle United (as well as essential investment needed in the infrastructure – training complex, Academy etc) and recently made comparisons to when he was at Napoli. The Serie A club back then agreeing to Rafa’s plans for a big transfer window that could set the club up for years, with Benitez having told them that he had targets who he believed could be sold on in the future if necessary, with big profits to reinvest. Which is exactly how it has played out over at Napoli.

Mike Ashley could easily have supplied this, if he had wanted to.

Instead of taking that £33m out of Newcastle United now, allow it to be used to grow the team/club and reap the greater potential benefits of that when you sell.

Maybe the owner could/should have put more money into the club, rather than taking it out.

Insist on all transfers being cash up front, rather than instalments.

Allow a significant part of the coming (2019/20) season’s Premier League income to be used this summer. Most other clubs do this either by loaning the money secured on guaranteed income from the Premier League/TV, or their rich owners provide the money to be spent up front. At Newcastle United this isn’t allowed to happen, Mike Ashley instead insisting on as much money as possible being available if/when he relegates NUFC for a third time, on top of the parachute payments and other revenues the club would be able to count on if in the Championship.

In other words, Mike Ashley is always planning for relegation whilst Rafa Benitez wants to plan for success.

By not allowing any net spend (indeed a net profit) on deals in and out last summer (2018), plus insisting on taking that £33m out, Mike Ashley was taking a massive gamble on staying up. It is misleading to think it was never in doubt, even with Rafa Benitez in charge, Newcastle didn’t win a game until November 2018 and a couple of key injuries, or even just (an on-loan!) Rondon, could have spelled serious trouble.

If he wanted to, Mike Ashley could have facilitated both a new training complex and the kind of summer 2019 transfer window Rafa Benitez wanted/wants to see, to give Newcastle United that major leap forward again and set the club up for future years as well.

Spending big this summer could/would mean not spending nearly as much next year and beyond, certainly when it comes to net spend.

However you want to look at it, it all comes down to one word, ambition.

The time to speculate is when you have the right manager in place, momentum there to be built on, as well as an engaged fanbase. We have all that.

I know Alan Pardew was in charge at the time but it is still absolutely shocking to look back and see the zero ambition from Mike Ashley when Newcastle somehow ended up fifth (squad players sold and that money paying only for Vurnon Anita to be added) in the 2011/12 season, indeed Mike Ashley’s quote from above in March 2016 as we nosedived to relegation (again) is worth noting: ‘To get a football club to be the best it can be, you have to get the sun, the moons and the stars to align perfectly.’

He had all of that and then 100% proved there was no ambition, just seeing it as an excuse NOT to spend money.

The truth is, that whilst/if Mike Ashley remains, there will be no breakthrough transfer window, nor will there ever be that new training complex. No proper investment on improving/increasing St James Park, nor financing an Academy that could regularly churn out players of the future.

With new owners all of the above could be possible.

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